Richard Fortey’s Dry Storeroom No. 1 is a book in praise of museums. Specifically, of the Natural History Museum in London, where he worked behind the scenes (sadly, I missed this venerable institution on my various trips to England).
The Natural History Museum, South Kensington (photo by “Valérie75,” 2007)
Founding father Richard Owen’s vision of the museum is described by Fortey as “a kind of paean to the Creator, a magnificent tribute to the glory of His works, a roll call of the splendid species created by His munificence and love for mankind.” A worthy goal, indeed!
Every museum needs a dinosaur – and founding father Richard Owen coined the term (photo by “Drow male,” 2008)
In a short story, Roger Zelazny once wrote that “museums mirror the past, which is dead, the present, which never notices, and transmit the race’s cultural heritage to the future, which is not yet born. In this they are near to being temples of religion.”
However, museums of natural history also have a critical research role in scientific classification, and Fortey provides an inside view of how this works. For example, by 1980 the Natural History Museum had over 22 million specimens – just of insects!
The book contains several interesting historical anecdotes, such as the story of the man fired for chasing the Loch Ness Monster.
The Museum did not look kindly on staff hunting monsters here at Loch Ness (photo by Sam Fentress, 2005)
One of the Museum’s treasures (described in the book as locked away, but now on show in an exhibit called “The Vault”) is an amethyst donated by Edward Heron-Allen and allegedly carrying an ancient curse – or so Heron-Allen’s letter says.
The Heron-Allen amethyst, “cursed and stained with blood” (photo from the Museum)
Overall, a well-written book, and a great read (if you love museums).